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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

America: Where we were, where we are (guest post)

How many of you recall a time in America when the income of a single school teacher or baker or salesman was enough to buy a home, have two cars, and raise a family? That used to be the norm. For three decades after World War II, we created the largest middle class the world had ever seen. During those years the wages of the typical American worker doubled, just as the size of the American economy doubled. More than a third of all workers belonged to a trade union -- giving average workers the bargaining power necessary to get a large and growing share of the large and growing economic pie (now, fewer than 7 percent of private-sector workers are unionized). CEO pay then averaged about 40 times the pay of the typical worker (now it's over 300 times). 

In those years the richest 1 percent took home 9 to 10 percent of total income (today the top 1 percent gets more than 20 percent). The tax rate on highest-income Americans never fell below 70 percent; under Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, it was 91 percent (today the top tax rate is 39.6 percent). Some of this money was used to build the largest infrastructure project in our history, the Interstate Highway system; some to build the world's largest and best system of free public education, and dramatically expand public higher education. We enacted the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act to extend prosperity and participation to African-Americans; Medicare and Medicaid to reduce poverty among America's seniors; and the Environmental Protection Act to help save our planet. And we made sure banking was boring. 

Then came the great U-turn, and for the last thirty years we've been heading in the opposite direction. The collective erasure of the memory of that prior system of broad-based prosperity is the greatest propaganda victory conservatives and the privileged have ever achieved. But the fact we did it then means we can do so again -- not exactly the same way, of course, but in a new way fit for the twenty-first century and future generations of Americans. It is worth the fight.

--Robert Reich

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